Labs Analysis: As 802.11n makes its way onto new smartphones and tablets, wireless administrators should stay skeptical about interoperability.
802.11n is booming in popularity. The WLAN standard earlier in September
celebrated its first anniversary since IEEE ratification, and the technology is
popping up in new types of devices all the time. But interoperability of all
these devices shouldn't be assumed.
Chris Kozup, Cisco Systems' senior manager of mobility solutions marketing,
recently told me that investment in wireless networking is rising to top of the
enterprise must-have checklist in all key verticals, and that the average
enterprise employee typically is armed with two to three WiFi radios while
college students may have five or six. He pointed to this proliferation of
devices outfitted with 802.11n radios as a primary driver for enterprise
adoption of the technology, quoting a recent ABI
Research prediction that 7 billion new 802.11n devices will flood the market by
eWEEK Labs has seen this prediction move closer toward reality this year, as
we've tested numerous devices newly outfitted with 802.11n radios, albeit most
supporting only 2.4GHz 802.11n due to cost and power usage considerations.
Apple's iPad and iPhone 4, Motorola's Droid X, and the BlackBerry Torch 9800
are a sampling of new 802.11n-enabled devices likely to be connected to
enterprise WiFi networks.
Of course, with so many new 802.11n devices pouring into the market and onto
the enterprise network, users and network administrators alike may be taking the
WiFi interoperability of these devices for granted. However, I fear that
expectation ignores reality in some cases.
Most of the devices I listed above have received WiFi interoperability
certification from the WiFi Alliance-but not all. When I tested the Motorola Droid X/A955
earlier this summer, I encountered WiFi connectivity difficulties with certain infrastructures. A
subsequent firmware release solved my specific problems, and I assumed WiFi
certification would follow shortly. But digging through the online database of certified devices
recently revealed that certification
hasn't happened yet.
In a way, the smartphone marketplace is starting to remind me of Hollywood
blockbuster movies. If a device doesn't have big launch (opening weekend), it's
immediately pegged a failure. Our collective interest flits from one device to
another, as the next big thing hits the market a week or two later from some
other maker, on some other carrier. With so many devices hitting the market,
many with short periods of desirability in front of them, I wonder whether
manufacturers' desire to get WiFi certification will weaken over time.
Device makers aren't abandoning certification yet. A quick scan shows that
the HTC EVO (PC36100), iPad, iPhone 4 and
BlackBerry Torch 9800 all received their WiFi certification around the time
they were launched. But what about products that don't pass the tests in time
for launch? Will Motorola go back and try again with the Droid X, if the
company is already focused more on promoting its next release? Will HTC
follow through to certify the Droid Incredible (PC31200) months after that
shouldn't count on it. Because the term "WiFi" has been co-opted as a
synonym for IEEE 802.11 products, rather than being used to mean proven and
certified compatibility with that standard as originally intended,
administrators should not assume "WiFi" equals interoperability for
their networks. In fact, I'd recommend that administrators check the
certification database often before allowing new devices onto their WLANs as
part of the consideration and vetting process.
The effect of these new devices on the corporate WLAN remains to be seen.
We've seen few examples of network problems that are directly attributable to
one type of device, but the problems uncertified devices cause could be
insidious rather than obvious. I'm keenly interested in the effects of these
consumer devices as they are granted admission to the corporate WLAN, and eWEEK
Labs is working closely with testing vendors to identify the impact popular
devices may have on corporate WLANs' operation and performance.